11 September 2023

Blessed be the copy editors, for they save our bacon.

I count among my greatest natural skills the ability to misspell, hack up syntax and transpose letters, words and sometimes whole sentences and paragraphs.  I’m not only very good at injecting these viruses into my prose, I can disguise them from all but the most discerning copy editor.  I also have a considerable knack for getting dates mixed up and scrambling places, directions and physical descriptions.  These things are generally categorized as continuity problems.  I create continuity catastrophes. 

(In the film production business, continuity people are second only to the director and DP on a film set. Since movies and TV shows are usually shot out of chronological order, someone has to corral the orderly march of events. “Stop the action! George’s tie needs to be cinched up. Meryl’s hair is sticking out of the bonnet again.”)

It's a mental problem. Which is why I’m utterly devoted to, and dependent on, copy editors. These are not proofreaders, who have their own value, but editorial professionals who bridge the terrain between proofreading and developmental editing.  The really good ones are worth their weight in gold.

They not only repair spelling, grammar and syntactical errors, they make sure the lake in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is near the right town, the blonde side character is blonde through the whole book, that a guy born in 1975 doesn’t knock off a bank in 1986, that an interstate goes through and not around a city, the French name for a particular delicacy is common in Paris but not in Montreal, and so on.

It’s astounding to me how many things I can get wrong, and how talented copy editors are at putting things to right. The bad guys speed away in an old Buick in chapter two, and by chapter ten they’re in an Oldsmobile. A character born on the South Side of Chicago is later reborn in Memphis, Tennessee. Don’t even talk to me about except or accept, heel or heal, peak or peek, then or than – and the worst, by far – affect or effect.

I just talked to a writer who said she had typo blindness. She can read the same page a hundred times and not see the mistake sitting right there on the page, and the copy editor will swoop right in and fix the problem.  I totally get this, and I think it’s your brain telling you everything is fine after you’ve looked at the work a few times, or a few million. You actually see the mistake as correct, and no subsequent review will make it otherwise. 

The skillful copy editor is also mindful of your writing style, and is respectful of your creative choices, knowing the difference between a colloquialism and a gaffe. They tend to pose potential corrections as questions, not mandates. There’s nothing worse than a copy editor who’s a grammar tyrant. A school marm who insists on classical style and usage. I once had one of these people remove all my contractions, entirely eliminate passive voice and slang, and fill out sentence fragments, even in the dialogue. They’re worse than having no copy editor at all.

I did not appreciate it. No, I did not.

I write a series and have written two trilogies, where it’s invaluable for the copy editor to know your characters and the world they inhabit, to check for deviations from prior works. These observations don’t always result in simple corrections. More often, they provide a path to a better product. I’ve found with revisions, one good thing often leads to another. It sometimes makes me wonder if I kept revising the book would it continue getting better. But then again, you have to eventually let it go. Put the pen down, accept what you got.

Or is it, what you have?

10 September 2023

Grift, Misinformation and the Long Arm of the Law

We often hear about the long arm of the law, suggesting that the justice system has far-reaching power. There is one place that the justice system doesn’t appear to be reaching: grifters who put people’s lives at risk.

These ‘influencers’ spread misinformation about snake oil cures for everything from diabetes to cancer. People die. No one pays the price. 

So, we’re learning that lying and killing people with lies isn’t a punishable crime. 

Mystery readers like myself have an innate need for justice to done. We want the arm of the law to be long enough to reach those who harm people, particularly if they kill them.

We’ve seen the rise of anti-vaccine misinformation reach so far into people’s psyche that not only are they eschewing COVID vaccines but also all vaccines - children are now dying of vaccine preventable disease like measles. For goodness sake, the news recently cited pet owners who are refusing vaccines, including rabies, for their pets because of autism fears.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has focused on the educational aspects and points out that, using various methods, 850,000 YouTube videos with harmful or misleading COVID-19 misinformation videos have been removed. However, this is a drop in an ever filling bucket. 

The WHO has joined various organizations asking for legal polices to stop misinformation but stop at outlining these policies - because it’s complicated. 

Legislators in various countries have made many attempts to rein in dangerous misinformation through regulation of tech giants. There have been suggestions of legal interventions that, “criminalize the dissemination of medical fake news”  The latter is so fraught with definitional problems that it’s not a good option, but certainly speaks to the increasing concern about putting people’s lives at risk.

So indulge me while I spitball some legal ideas with no legal training at all but with a strong sense of ‘what the heck can we do’? 

What if we start very small? What if there were some cases where people were harmed and they then sue? A few of those might make a dent in the growing rise of grifters. Nothing like fear and case law to stop wrong doing. 

Here’s a sample grift and my fantasy. The grift is real, you can find it here.

picture of scam message

Now, this may seem like a small problem compared to many other forms of misinformation and certainly, the reach of this is much smaller. But starting small makes it easier.

This woman claims to cure eyesight, so what if someone was ‘cured’ and then got into an accident driving? What if they sued her for damages? 

One small victory against grift might start a snowball effect. It’s a simple grift - eyesight cure - and a simple test - either eyesight is better or it’s not. I’m a fan of starting simple. 

It also is the extension of existing laws protecting people. If a doctor gives medical advice or therapy in the form of pills etc. and a patent is harmed, that doctor not only risks the loss of their medical license, but also jail time. So why not extend this to all medical therapies? 

While I’m spitballing and fantasizing, here’s another one: drugs for every disease need to follow rigorous testing guidelines. What is stopping legislators from demanding this from all ‘cures’ for all diseases? Then the grifters could be held legally liable for damages or even sued for putting their ‘cures’ in the public domain. This simple levelling of the playing field for all cures is fair, understandable by the public and simply extends existing laws around medical interventions. legal and regulatory measures.

I know this seems simple – nay, simplistic – but there may be a place for simple, clear solutions that start small, alongside looking at large scale changes to social media content. There is less support for stopping misinformation when it is an abstract concept and just the word ‘information’ gives an opening for demands for freedom of speech. To be clear, medical intervention is not covered under free speech protection, nor are drug manufactures able to claim free speech regarding the claims they make for their drugs. This also fits a justice model we are familiar with: if someone causes harm or death to another by any means, they are criminally responsible. This is one small way that the long arm of the law can extend its reach. 

09 September 2023

Good For the Soul (RIP to a Storyteller)

America has been so over-celebritized for so long that it's daily news that some star passed away. For me, these trigger a brief thought of condolences for their family. We've all gone through loss. Some celebrity deaths hit me if I've connected with their work. A rare few get gut-punch deep. Prince was that way. He left this rock much too young. Nanci Griffith, John Prine. Jimmy Buffett was another hard hit.

I'm not a Parrothead. I never saw Buffett in concert. Should have. Didn't. I only own one of his full albums, but I've had it forever. 

If you were a Louisville East End kid in my day, you had Buffett's Songs You Know By Heart. By social necessity, if no other reason. If any party lasted long enough, this CD got played. It just did, no matter that the songs were already a decade old then. 

It worked as party music, but somehow, in a way no kid would yet understand, you connected with this Gulf and Western sound. Here was Buffett going on about Caribbean islands and open seas while we stared at a brown river too dodgy for swimming. Shrimp boil? We fried cod, thank you very much. It got flown in. And yet we cracked beers and listened along as if that surf pounded at our feet. 

Maybe you're a Parrothead, maybe not. It's a safe bet you know a few, and you know they're never outgrowing it. I play Buffett when the mood is right, or the latitude. It's done by iTunes in these too-modern days. I understand why he connects with so many, now. It's more than his embrace of a joyful noise. Buffett was a storyteller of high order. 

A sailor wants a cheeseburger. He's between ports and eating sunflower seeds, and that cheeseburger craving has a hold of him. We never hear that he gets that next burger, though we're rooting along the quest. Another guy flies to the tropics to sort out his life. He and a chum get drunk on rum, and he grows to accept the good and bad as it comes. A musician stuck in the snowy north is stuck with his band getting drunk on boat drinks. All he wants is out, out, out, anywhere warm. Or two guys rob a gas station for $15, a can of STP, some cashews, and a Japanese TV ("We're wanted men / we'll strike again / but first let's have a beer"). They're busted at a Krystal.

I love stories like this. Big-hearted, well-constructed, full of adventure, evoking a sense of place and something larger at work in our world. Buffett sang a lot about time and timelessness and how ordinary folks fill that up. No one has done troubadour like Buffett, often hilarious ("Why Don't We Get Drunk" and "My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink, and I Don't Love Jesus"), often touching ("He Went to Paris" and "A Pirate Looks at Forty"). Sometimes it was just pure turn of phrase ("If the Phone Doesn't Ring, It's Me"). Small wonder he was also a heck of a writer. His 1980s short story collection is beach read gold (it is back in print, FYI).

Buffett played dive bars and knew drugs and drug smugglers. Hell, his sound was too genuine for Nashville. Music City might've known how to package him if he'd settled on a mainstream warbler style or even a bad boy image. Buffettism refuses the choice. In a Buffett song, and in all of us, there blends a little good and a little bad, someone looking backward and a little forward but dealing in the now. Making the best of it. As "Grapefruit-Juicy Fruit" puts it: Drive-in / Guzzle gin / Commit a little mortal sin / It's good for the soul.

And what a soul. Even to casual fans, his loss comes as a mortal slap. Buffett was Peter Pan. Did we really expect him to grow old, even when he often sang about precisely that? And if his time came, ours will, too. Like a Buffett character, we're left bare and staring at the horizon and what's inevitable beyond. Until then, we're meant to fumble around and relish what time we're given. 

Buffett's signature way of taking fun seriously are why he still resonates after I've long put away other things of youth. His storytelling works anywhere, even Louisville, because we all dream of a perfect someplace else where the party goes on and on.

08 September 2023

On Stephen King...

Photo by Shane Leonard

 As I type this, a copy of Holly, the latest Stephen King novel, sits in a TBR stack I keep in my living room. It's a few books down and obviously not the last King book I will read. I've read most of his canon in the order published, segregating the Bachman books at the end. But until You Like It Darker drops next year, I'll have read everything he's published with a few exceptions. Some of the screenplays, some uncollected short stories and novellas. I definitely never read The Plant because King put the kibosh on it when his ebook experiment (pre-Kindle) did not work. I also did not read his book about the Red Sox recent World Series run.

King is an odd choice to occupy his place in American literature. He's an unabashed horror writer who's recently shown a penchant for crime fiction. To his annoyance, some complain when he eschews the supernatural for crime, but the Bachman books show he's just as at home there. In fact, only two Bachman books, Thinner and The Regulators, are overtly supernatural. Rage and Road Work are out-and-out noir, while Blaze, an admitted trunk novel, takes its cues from Of Mice and Men. The Long Walk and The Running Man are both dystopian thrillers with one foot in noir and the other in science fiction. One wonders if this is what they watched on TV in Gilead in A Handmaid's Tale

Yet horror is King's wheelhouse. Horror is not supposed to produce classic novels. Yet The Stand, The Shining, It... All these are cultural touchstones. They might owe some spiritual strands to HP Lovecraft, but they're hardly Lovecraftian horror. (Well, It is basically Cthulhu in  a clown suit chewing scenery and inspiring Bill Skarsgard to channel Tim Curry. Bad example.) But horror is just a canvass for King to paint on. 

His real talent is making a fictional place seem real. Castle Rock, or rather Castle County, gets its first mention in Blaze, written before Carrie. You really believe there's an Overlook Hotel (or was), You expect George Bannerman or Alan Pangborn or Norris Ridgewick to answer your 911 call. And we just won't mention Salem's Lot or Derry. By the time of the Gwendy trilogy, Derry is actually more dangerous than the Lot. 

I always described King's horror as this. The guy next door who borrowed your mower is Satan. And he's not the problem. He's worried about the weird stuff going on across the street. But the horror takes a backseat to the characters and the story. Jack Torrance in The Stand is already headed over the edge. The ghosts and the isolation of the Overlook just give him a not-so-gentle shove. The Stand takes ordinary people and tosses them into the post-apocalyptic battle between good and evil. 

But perhaps his greatest monster is not Pennywise or Leland Gaunt or even Randall Flagg. It has to be Annie Wilkes, the obsessed fan of one writer's work who suddenly has him in her clutches. King actually imagined Annie offing poor Paul Sheldon and feeding him to her pig while she enjoyed his last novel lovingly bound in his skin. If you've read the book or watched the movie, it's almost a surprise that was not how it ended. Annie is that most dangerous creature: The one unaware of their own evil and convinced of the righteousness of their cause.

Next year will be sixty years since Carrie was published. Naturally, there are hits and misses. Cell is a huge misfire, a lightweight Stand that doubles as a rant against cell phones. The Dark Tower Series is uneven until King figures out what he wants it to do (and manages to plug it in to most of his canon.)

King himself has lamented that his best regarded work came early in his career. The Stand and Salem's Lot are cultural touchstones. But listening to my share of rockers, I'm not surprised. There's a certain quality that comes with a lack of inhibition and ignorance of the rules. King will tell a story in a long, rambling style. He'll go off on tangents, but the tangents are stories unto themselves. And the man has an eye and ear for character. In his brilliant nonfiction tome, On Writing, he relates the accident that nearly killed him and may have revitalized his passion for writing. In describing the man who hit him in his minivan, King says, "I was nearly killed by one of my own characters." Years later, as Roland crosses into our world from that of the Dark Tower series, both King and the late Bryan Smith, the driver, do become characters when another character literally comes out of the story to badger the author into finishing. (Methinks the later Dark Tower books were therapy as much as parts of a longer epic.)

 The next time I land in this space, I'll either be reading Holly, his latest, or have finished it. But next time, I want to look at King's alter-ego, Richard Bachman.

07 September 2023

Dunning-Kruger Should Be A Last Name

We've all sat in on those meetings. Someone sent by administration to explain things to us. Motivate us. Well-dressed. Well-groomed. A whiff (or a wave) of cologne. A voice that never stops. When interrupted, a look of pained disappointment (I learned to call it the LPD) and on with the monologue. No content, just bullet points (All of the following taken from meetings I somehow survived.):

  • Try test phases.
  • Make your mistakes small.
  • Small projects equal small mistakes.
  • Always manage the managers.
  • Build rapport.
  • We must create change through awareness on a variety of issues.
  • Community, community, community.
  • Work towards core competencies.
  • Train people in listening skills. (And he certainly was training us.)
  • Innovation is mandatory in order to thrive.
  • Manage (or was it massage?) the managers.
  • New ideas refresh old roots. 
  • A willow cannot grow beyond what the stump can bear.
  • What is developed can be proprietary in a way that adaptations cannot.
  • Always ask, what will it look like if we do this?  

All about as informative, substantive, and practical as fog.  And then come the word salads:

This is all really simple, people.  Mutually verifiable evidence is critical when trying to settle disagreements.  Gravity can be mutually verified. We can define what we mean by it. We can design tests to prove it exists. Others can do the same tests and get the same results without the need to "believe" in it first. Or water. Water is H2O. We can narrowly define water so that only H2O is water. We can design experiments to tests for water. We can design tests to show that water is made up two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule. We can verify something is water by doing experiments that produce the same results. Anyone who doubts that water is H2O can do the experiments and if they find something different can present their findings for scrutiny. If they can show that they did the exact same test and got contradictory results, we could then say that the assertion that water is H2O is not mutually verifiable. So mutually verifiable evidence is the only way to solve problems or disagreements.  (By now we were all doodling away.)

And the one that nearly started a riot: 

It's not that complicated.  You women must have more conversations with men to educate them. You must have the courage to speak out, speak often, but always gently, lovingly, to change the men around you. Men can't hear what women don't say. Women who don't complain are part of the problem. Not complaining sends mixed messages to men. Complaining lets men know a woman's barriers and how to relate to her. But always gently, lovingly, respectfully. 

Finally, the meeting is over.  And everyone bitches about it for a few days. And then the memo comes from on high, "We expect a draft of your department's long-range plan to implement the proposals given in the meeting." To which we all answer, mentally, "WHAT PROPOSALS?  IT WAS ALL BULLS***T!"

"The Dunning-Kruger effect is a type of cognitive bias in which people believe they are smarter and more capable than they are. Essentially, low-ability people do not possess the skills needed to recognize their own incompetence. The combination of poor self-awareness and low cognitive ability leads them to overestimate their capabilities." (LINK)

In other words, they know they know everything, and will impart their "knowledge" to you at any opportunity, even if they have to create it, and no evidence will ever convince them that they're wrong.  A lot of extremely wealthy people are like this because of the basic theory 

wealth = expertise and knowledge.  


I'll never stop laughing over that one.

But they're at every level and walk of life, especially any profession which gives them a podium and a mike, or puts them in charge of anything.  Which is why Douglas Adams had the Golgafrinchans divest themselves of a useless third of their population (beginning with middle management) by sending them out in Ark Fleet Ship B, and God knows we've all thought about it...

Douglas Adams, we still miss you!

Also, all dictators, from Qin Shihuangdi to Mao Zedong, Lenin to Putin, Robespierre to Rousseau were and are absolutely convinced that they know everything about how things work.  (My favorite is still Rousseau writing the first hugely popular book on child education - Emile - despite having put everyone of his children in an orphanage.  Write what you know...)

And, of course, all conspiracy theorists and cult members - or did I just repeat myself?

Did I mention politicians? 

Meanwhile, the same people who are IMPOSSIBLE in meetings, family dinners, and daily life can be hilarious (or not) in books and on film:

Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers, Pink Panther franchise) - we all know Inspector Clouseau, egotistical, incompetent, clumsy, who somehow always manages to evade assassins and find the culprit. He drives everyone around him crazy, sometimes literally so (I empathize with Herbert Lom's Chief Inspector).  But it's funny...

Foggy Dewhurst (Brian Wilde, Last of the Summer Wine, the longest running sit-com in history) - Foggy is a former soldier who liked to boast of his military exploits in the WW2 jungles of Burma, even though he'd been a corporal sign-writer who was stationed in Wales. He's an expert on everything (he thinks he's mended a toaster and decides that means he can mend anything) and is determined to meddle in every problem he sees. He loves to give his occupation as "trained killer" and is shocked when he's occasionally arrested for it. I find him hilarious.

Florence Foster Jenkins (Florence Foster Jenkins starring Meryl Streep) - Now there's a woman who in real life was tone deaf and no one ever had the guts to tell her...

Michael Scott (Steve Carrell, The Office) - One of the reasons I never watched more than a couple of episodes. I didn't find him funny at all, because I've been too many meetings.

The Manager in Dilbert - 'Nuff said.

Owl in Winnie the Pooh - kind of cute in a children's book.

Uncle Andrew in The Magician's Nephew (C. S. Lewis) - who really gets in over his head, and it's such fun to watch.

Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory - his genius in physics makes him think he's a genius in everything. He's not.

Paul in Midnight in Paris - Pseudo-intellectual who dazzles (some) women with his knowledge of French art and culture, despite being wrong most of the time.

Hap Shaughnessy on The Red Green Show - lay-about at the Lodge who claims to have known everyone, done everything, been everywhere, including guitarist for the Rolling Stones.  

Walter Sobchak (John Goodman, The Big Lebowski) - oh, my dears, I have known so many Walters, angry, obsessed, self-centered, who will not shut up, who knows he is always right...  I still think the Coen Brothers should have made his day job some kind of warped management retreat leader.  

So who's your favorite Dunning-Kruger act-alike?  

05 September 2023

AI, Caramba


by Peter Rozovsky

Can you stand one more story of AI oddities?  This one is a little different. 

A few months ago I put up a query on Facebook.  I will repeat it here because I am still looking for an answer:

Back in the early seventies I read a short story in a high school English class and I don't know the author or the title.  Any hints?  The narrator is an adult remembering his childhood.  He was a member of the best Boy Scout troop in a city. An ambitious young man (brother of the mayor, or something similar) decided the best way to get started in politics was to be the head of that troop. He tried to push the scoutmaster out and when that failed the authorities started an investigation of the scoutmaster for unspecified wrongdoing.  The young narrator was called before the inquiry panel and asked if the scoutmaster had ever mistreated him.  Eager to defend him, the boy said, no, he's very nice to us. He hugs us, etc.  Unknowingly, he gives them exactly the ammunition they need to falsely charge the man with being a pedophile.  

That's all I wrote on Facebook but I will reveal the ending here:


After the hearing the scoutmaster  tells the boy "You told the truth and I'm proud of you."  Then he goes home and kills himself.

If anyone know the author and title of that story I would love to find out.

But back to the AI deal.  Someone on Facebook decided to ask Bard for help.  Bard is an experimental AI program from Google. They showed me the result and it was startling.  Bard found a story by a well-known author with the word "Boy Scout" in the title and it described a plot very much like the one I described.

I got quite excited.  Then I reached the ending and it was completely different than the one I remembered.  Huh?  Did I have it all wrong?  Were there two similar stories with different conclusions?

Not Bard

I finally realized what had happened.  Bard had attached a version of the story summary I wrote to an existing title and, since it didn't know the real ending, had made one up.  And claimed it was the real one.

So I went to Bard and asked it to find novels about a member of the mafia trying to save the environment.  Now, that is a logline for my novel Greenfellas.  Here is a reasonable summary of that book, written by me:

Sal Caetano is the consiglieri for a New Jersey Mafia family.  When he becomes a grandfather he decides to save the environment for his granddaughter, by any means necessary.  His mission puts him in conflict with other gangs, the FBI, politicians, ecoterrorists and, most dangerous of all, his own mob family.

This is what Bard came up with:

Sure, here is a novel about a member of the mafia trying to save the environment:

Greenfellas by Robert Lopresti

In this comic novel, a group of mobsters in New Jersey decide to start a new business: environmental protection. They call themselves the Greenfellas, and they use their mob connections to help clean up pollution and protect endangered species.

The Greenfellas are led by Vinnie "The Earthworm" Caputo, a former waste management executive who is now dedicated to saving the planet. He is joined by his crew, including "Big Al" the enforcer, "Little Pauly" the accountant, and "The Professor" the scientist.

 The Greenfellas soon find themselves in over their heads when they take on a corrupt developer who is trying to build a casino on a protected wetland. But they are determined to succeed, even if it means risking their lives.

Greenfellas is a funny and heartwarming novel that explores the unlikely relationship between the mafia and environmentalism. It is a story about redemption, friendship, and the power of one person to make a difference.

Bizarre, huh? Bard correctly identified my book as matching the request, and then made up a plot for it.  I can only hope that very few people, like my Facebook friend, try to use Bard as a source for information. 

It reminds me of the weird recent case of the lawyer who asked an AI  to write his brief. The lawyer was suspicious about the results so what did he do?  He  asked that same AI if the citations were accurate. It assured him they were. What could possibly go wrong?

I just asked Bard about ecoMafia novels again and this time it didn't find my book but produced a list of books that don't acually exist such as Mafia's Green Agenda by Michael Connelly (2013) and The Green Olive Conspiracy by Anthony Bruno (2012).  (I like that title.) I will not give you the plots.  

And now I'm going to go read something created by humans.

Make Time for Meet-Ups

Temple, I think we’re
going to need more luggage.

Though this will appear after our return, I’m writing this a few days before Temple and I leave for Bouchercon San Diego. Planning for seven days away from home—who’ll collect our mail each day, how many bags will we need for our clothes and the books that will return with us, and at what temperature should we set the thermostat so the Texas heat doesn’t cause our house to spontaneously combust while we’re away?—plays second fiddle to planning our time at Bouchercon.

When Temple and I attended Bouchercon New Orleans in 2016, our first convention together and my second mystery convention (my first was Bouchercon Austin 2002), our only planned meet-up was a lunch at the Napoleon House organized by O’Neil and Deb De Noux for Short Mystery Fiction Society members. At each subsequent Bouchercon and at each Malice Domestic, which we now also attend regularly, our scheduled meet-ups have increased.

Some meet-ups (usually over a meal) are with my editors and publishers, some are with writers I’ve edited and published, and some are with friends Temple and I have made over the years. (And some of the people we’ll be spending time with belong in every category.) Of course, there are also unofficial meet-ups in the hallways, at the late-night poker games, and in the bar.

What this means is that—despite my moderating a pair of panels—we have less time to attend all the wonderful programming. There just aren’t enough hours during the convention to do everything we want to do and spend time with everyone with whom we want to spend time.


At every in-person Bouchercon since Toronto 2017 and at every in-person Malice Domestic since 2018, I have returned home with an opportunity I might never have had, had I not attended and made a concerted effort to speak with other attendees. I don’t go with the intention to pitch this project or ingratiate myself with that editor, but proximity to so many talented writers, editors, and fans is like being in an idea incubator. An idea bounced off a fellow writer over lunch and pitched to a publisher that evening over drinks became the serial novella anthology series Guns + Tacos. An anthology idea pitched to a publisher on the fly in a hallway became Jukes & Tonks. A discussion over lunch with a writer who had never collaborated with anyone became the short story “Dogs of War.” The examples seem endless.

What I take away from this is how important attending conventions can be to a mystery writer’s career, and I realize it’s something that’s out of reach of many writers. It was certainly out of my reach until Temple and I married in 2015.

I was only able to attend Bouchercon Austin in 2002 because I could drive to the hotel each day. I barely had enough money for meals, and I had no money for books and other expenses. Additionally, my previous spouse was neither interested in nor involved in my writing career. Then, during the many years between marriages, I struggled to support myself as a freelancer, so things like house payments, electricity bills, and health insurance took priority. Now, with dual incomes and a supportive spouse, Bouchercon, Malice Domestic, and maybe other mystery conferences and conventions in the future, are or can be on my calendar.

That it took so long to learn the value of convention attendance makes me wonder what might have been had I been able to regularly attend Bouchercon and other conventions when I was younger. Might I have had similar opportunities twenty or thirty years ago?

At the same time, I think about all the would-be and beginning writers who—like me when I was younger—can’t attend Bouchercon or other conferences, especially if they live in areas with no other writers in proximity. What if they don’t have supportive spouses, can’t find childcare, can’t get the time off work, don’t have the money, or have any of dozens of other reasons that put convention attendance out of their reach? How hard will they have to struggle to make the connections—big and small—that will help them advance their writing careers to the next level and the levels beyond?

Active participation in social media may give them a leg up, but nothing beats breaking bread with like-minded fellow writers, editors, and publishers, especially those who aren’t from your neck of the woods.

So, if you’re a mystery writer struggling to find a way to attend mystery conventions, consider these opportunities:

The Bouchercon Scholarship Award Program is a start. It’s too late for the Bouchercon that just ended, so watch the Bouchercon 2024 website for information about applying next year.

The William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant for Unpublished Writers is another option. Watch the Malice Domestic website for information about applying for 2024.

And if readers know of similar opportunities at other mystery conferences and conventions, please add them in the comments.

My Derringer-winning story “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” is reprinted in Black Cat Weekly #100, July 30, 2023.

My Derringer Award-winning story “Getting Out of the Box” is reprinted in Illicit Motions (Unnerving).

“Smitty’s Roadside Diner,” a collaboration with Sandra Murphy, appears in the September/October issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

All-American Male (Book 1 of the Men in Love and Lust series) was released by Deep Desires Press.

04 September 2023

What Are You Reading?

It's been the hottest driest summer in TX that I can remember in 75+ years.

How hot is it? I saw a robin blowing on his worm before eating. 

How hot is it? Hotter than a ten-dollar pistol at a Saturday night jewelry store. 

How hot is it? Hotter than a witch's... uh wait, that's a colder than reference.

Oh, I remember this year, and oh that year, and oh yeah, that other year. Yet I'm talking now about 47 straight days of 100 plus and they often were 103 to 108 or 110. Then we had one day of ONLY 99, but the next day and week, and the next week after that was 100 plus for every day again.

I had the lovely idea of doing my best to read for escape. To get so lost in a book I wouldn't even think about the relentless heat outside. 

For my big escape journey I began rereading books by Dana Stabenow. I say rereading because I'd read most all before. All are set somewhere in Alaska. Almost all set in ice and snow with below freezing temperatures. So far, in the last couple of months, I've read 18 or 19 of the Kate Shugat series and I think maybe five of the Liam Campbell books. Which I'm not sure read one of those before. Nice benefit of getting older is forgetting a book you have read before. In Alaska, even when it's summer there, they're talking about 80 degrees in the daytime and it cools down to sweater or light jacket weather for evening.

If I'm lucky it will cool down here around about Thanksgiving. 

Thanks Ms Stabenow. You've really saved my life. 

A couple of other books I read lately is Countdown, a thriller by Brendan DuBois, with James Patterson. It's the kind of book that keeps you quickly turning pages and forgetting hot and dry.

And recently reread, To Hell and Gone in Texas by Russ Hall, a local Austin writer, I've known for years. This book came out in 2014 and is just re-released for all y'all who love reading about bullets and blood and brothers with several twists you never expect. 

All in all books have helped me make it through these hot days that only cool to around 75 at 3:00am.

So what are y'all reading and why?

03 September 2023

The Digital Detective ~ Robocall Killers

Minutes ago my phone rang. I glanced at the caller ID. Usually it shows ‘Spam Likely’ and I swipe it off the screen. This time it gave a name I didn’t recognize. An unknown caller could have something to do with business, insurance, medical… who knows? I answered. Here are tips I’ve discovered to deal with telemarketers.

old-fashioned telephone receiver

Tip 1

Like everyone else, I say hello immediately. I quickly say hello again and, hearing nothing, I’ll immediately hang up: a 1, a 2, click! Type A people do that– state your business or leave. Occasionally I catch half a syllable from ‘Mary’ or ‘Hector’ or ‘James’ from Indianapolis (INDIAnapolis) just as they might have caught my second Hello, but I’ve evaporated. I identified a spammer and dealt with the problem.

How does this benefit?

Robocaller machines initiate spam calls. I’m making educated assumptions, but it takes a couple of seconds to transverse the continents to India and then another moment or two for their operative to punch the connect button. They might hear my second hello, but by that time, I’m already gone.

But what if the call was important?

Naturally, they’ll phone back. In the course of fielding zillions of these interruptions, not one has called back. I suspect they’re geared to use auto-dialers but don’t permit manually dialing out.

Opinions to the contrary abound. Hanging up confirms a real person is at your end of the line, and, the belief goes, your number is marked for endless re-dialing. But, unless a robodialer hears the three tone SIT (special information tones) indicating “not a working number” or “number not in service”, it knows it has reached a valid telephone. It will try and try again no matter what.

Tip 2

Have you received a call from a cheery voice who asks, “Hello? Can you hear me?” Or a man who says, “How are you today?”

It takes training oneself, but don’t reflexively answer yes, okay, fine, good, lovely, peachy. You do not want professional spam callers to hear those words. Why?

Your voice is recorded on a separate track from theirs. That makes it easier to race through a recording where your mention of details can be readily found and identified. But it also makes it easy to manipulate the semblance of the conversation based on affirmative answers about the audibility of the call or the state of your day. With a push of an on-screen button, a trivial program can take your answers and turn one conversation into another:

“Hello? I’m calling on a recorded line. Can you hear me?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Good. How are you today?”
“Okay, fine.”

Misusing your answers can automatically result in repurposed recordings like:

“Hello? I’m calling on a recorded line. May I have your permission to continue?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Excellent. Can I sign you up for toxic chemical carpet cleaning, a new water hardener, a vacation to exciting DoofusLand, and a subscription to Mayonnaise Monthly?”
“Okay, fine.”

I stress reports of manipulated recordings are anecdotal chatter on discussion boards, but accusations recur and cherry-picking a victim’s responses is easier than you think. The result is that recipients claim they never intended to buy or even give telemarketers permission to call them. I’m not aware lawbreaking telemarketers have attempted to mislead the FTC, but simply initiating pre-recorded calls violates FTC’s own TSRs– the rules for telemarketers.

old-fashioned desk telephone


The National Do-Not-Call Registry (888-382-1222 / https://www.donotcall.gov/) would be a good idea if spammers paid attention to it. Register all the same; it might dissuade one or two.

This article doesn’t delve into some technologies such as STIR/SHAKEN, which caused a brief 4½% dip in telemarketing attacks, only to climb more than ever before. One of the more common tricks is to spoof the victim’s area code and exchange (first six digits) to hint to the recipient of a neighborhood call. Others will throw false caller IDs on the screen such as Amazon, Apple, or Google.

Visit your App Store. Following is a list of apps you might find useful. Some rely upon collected databases of known spam numbers. You might hear this in action if your phone chirp or rings once and then stops. It had experienced a delay finding the number in a database. While useful, database apps don’t stop spammers from spoofing valid numbers.

Let us know your experience and useful tips.

ActiveArmor EyeconNumbusterShould I Answer
Call BlockerFind Caller Reverse CallerTruecaller
Calls BlacklistNomoroboRoboKillerYouMail

02 September 2023

Where'd THAT Story Come From?


I have a couple of new mystery stories out, and after some questions about them the other day from one of my (two) fans, I figured I'd give you the "stories behind the stories."

The first of the two is "The POD Squad," in the current (Sep/Oct) issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. This is the eighth installment of my Sheriff Ray Douglas mystery series--seven of those have appeared in AHMM and one in the now-defunct Down & Out: The Magazine.

I remember deciding, before the writing started, that for this story I wanted to add another protagonist alongside the sheriff and his crimesolving girlfriend Jennifer Parker--and this wound up being a bright high-school student named Billy Osmond, whose last name became necessary when I got around to choosing a title (more about that later). Billy became part of the plot when he attended the annual science fair that served as the setting for the first part of the story, so my hero and heroine could meet him.

Another thing I wanted to include in this story was three different mysteries in three separate locations. I'd done that once before, in a story called "Scavenger Hunt" (AHMM, Jan/Feb 2018) and the multiple cases in multiple places made the plot more fun to write. Also, as before, I wanted to make two of those mysteries-within-the-mystery turn out to be directly connected, late in the story. This time around, all three crimes would be robberies of some kind, one of them minor and the other two more serious--and I wanted the high-school kid to provide some assistance to the grownups in solving them. 

To say more about the plot would probably involve spoilers, but I'll mention something I alluded to earlier: "The POD Squad" was one of those stories that didn't immediately suggest a title to me while I was plotting it. In fact I still didn't have a title when I finished the writing. Well, that's not exactly true: I had several titles in mind, but I thought all of them were pretty anemic. For inspiration I finally went back to an old TV show called The Mod Squad, about three young and mismatched city cops. I liked the clever rhyme of that title and the makeup of the trio (one white guy, one white woman, one Black guy), and since my team of three "detectives" was also diverse (man, woman, boy) I decided to call them The POD Squad. To make that possible, I gave Ray and Jen's helper the last name of Osmond so they could jokingly be the Parker-Osmond-Douglas squad. The only time that's mentioned in the story is in one brief exchange of dialog near the end--but it solved my title problem. 

I should add that I had a great time writing this story, partly because of the constant banter between the two investigators and their new and temporary team member, and also because of the need to put the supposedly separate plots on a collision course and come up with what I hoped would be an unexpected and satisfying ending. (Dialog and plotting have always been my favorite parts of writing, anyway.) The story turned out to be around 5000 words, which is about what I was aiming for in the planning stages.

The second of these two recent stories is called "Cargo," which came out last Sunday in Issue #104 of Black Cat Weekly. This was the fifth "new" story I've written for BCW--most of my stories there have been reprints--and was chosen by co-editor Michael Bracken as his "pick of the week." (Thanks, Michael--and thanks to both you and Barb Goffman for again featuring one of my creations.)

"Cargo" is also around 5000 words, but in almost everything else it's way different from my AHMM story. Specifically, this one is (1) a standalone instead of a series installment, (2) made up of fewer characters, (3) set in the distant past, (4) set in a non-Southern location, (5) more violent, (6) a how-do-I-survive story instead of a whodunit, and (7) a love story in addition to a mystery. Besides all that, it's different because it's based on my own background. "Cargo" is about an incident in the life of a young lieutenant at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma who is assigned as Officer of the Day, one of those usually dull "additional duties" that come around about once a year and sound more important than they are. OD duty basically involves spending the night and some of the day in the control tower and offering any needed assistance to the air-traffic and flight-line folks, including the greeting and hosting of any visiting dignitaries who might be passing through. To make a long story short (pun intended), this tale was based on one of the times I myself served as Officer of the Day, during my years at Tinker in the 1970s. And the fact that I wrote it in first-person POV made it seem even more real to me.

While there are a lot of similarities to my experience that night and the setup is the same--even down to what movie was playing at the base theater--the events of the rest of the story are far different, and certainly more exciting, than what happened in real life. Just as in the story, two colonels flew in that evening in a transport plane carrying the coffins of two soldiers, and I was required to do some things I hadn't done before--but I doubt I would've been brave enough or smart enough to have handled the fictional part of all this as well as my fictional counterpart did. (Isn't it great the way the Clark Kents and Bruce Waynes of the world can become all-powerful when they need to be, in these stories we write?) Even so, because I was there, the telling of the story brought back plenty of memories of that time and place and situation.

I also wanted to make this a "framed" story. I don't do that often, but for this one it seemed to be appropriate: At the beginning, an old man is telling his granddaughter the story, then we switch to the past for the story itself, and at the end we go back to the grandpa and grandchild for the wrapup, and for what I hope might be a final surprise. This approach is nothing new; examples of framed narratives are everywhere. Some that I especially remember are novels/movies like The Princess Bride, The Green Mile, Titanic, etc.--and when they work, they work well.

Anyhow, that's my overview of the kinds of things that inspired these two stories. If you happen to read one or both of them, I hope you enjoy the time spent.

Questions: How often do you, as a writer, write stories with more than one plotline? (Novels often use them, as subplots or even parallel plots--I like to read those and to watch movies that feature them--but I seldom see a lot of that in shorts.) How about stories that draw heavily on your own personal experiences? Finally, do you like "framed" stories that start in the present, go back to the past, and end up in the present again? Have you tried writing them?

Okay, enough of that. If you're still reading this, thanks for sticking with it.

Now get to work on your next story . . .

01 September 2023

Yikes! and Crickets! The Happy Hollisters are back!

Where do you stand on rewriting or editing the work of long-dead authors? Yes, I am thinking of the recent articles we’ve all seen about revising the work of such authors as Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, Ursula LeGuin, and Roald Dahl, among others.

I’m asking for a few other reasons.

One: I was just in a casino—I swear I was there for research—and encountered a ton of slot machines derived from literary works. Willy Wonka slot machines. James Bond slot machines. Game of Thrones, and The Lord of the Rings slot machines. Granted, these slots were devoted to filmed versions of these literary properties. But it nevertheless reminded me that there is big money in keeping the literary heritage of an author as trouble-free as possible. No wonder the heirs of various estates are tempted to permit revision of their ancestor’s work. They want book sales and licensing deals to keep rolling in until the copyrights have expired.

Two: I’m also asking because I recently revisited a couple of books in a mystery series I’d enjoyed as a kid. Those books not only raised the question of revision, but, to my mind, complicated the issue even further. It’s back-to-school time in the U.S., so I thought this might make an interesting conversation. But I warn you right now: I cannot easily answer some of the questions I will pose to you. I actually hope that you can help me.

The Happy Hollisters at Sea Gull Beach is the third book in the series I’m talking about, but it was the first to hook me as a kid. It’s the story of a family of amateur sleuths who search for a long-lost pirate ship while on a beach vacation. When I discovered the book at a library sale in the early 1970s, it struck me as aspirational. A family that goes on a vacation to the beach at a moment’s notice? To solve a mystery? Parents who don’t berate their kids about how much this trip is costing? Sold!

It never occurred to me that the Happy Hollisters were part of a larger franchise until I discovered a stash of 15 more titles at a yard sale. By then, I was a little older, and I marveled at how all the loose ends of the plots wrapped neatly in 182 or 184 pages like clockwork.

Only recently did I learn that the Hollisters were part of the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew empire. Their return to the publishing stage in the 21st Century can be seen as a triumph of self publishing, and an object lesson on the importance of preserving one’s intellectual property.


The series ran from 1953 to 1969. They were written by “Jerry West,” a pen name for Andrew E. Svenson, a total Jersey boy—born, schooled, married, and employed first at a newspaper in the Garden State. In mid-1940s, he joined the Stratemeyer Syndicate, then based in East Orange, New Jersey. Svenson wrote about 80 books for the firm, including books in the Hardy Boys series.

In 1950, when the firm began revamping those books to purge them of the offensive racism that had nearly gotten them axed by their publisher, Grosset & Dunlap, Svenson oversaw that operation, revising titles that he himself and other writers had written years earlier. (I’m not going to delve into the specifics of that revision project; that’s what Prof. Wiki is for.) Franchises such as the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew have since been revised numerous times to fit those characters into the modern world. Before anyone was thinking of purging James Bond or Hercule Poirot or Willy Wonka, the Stratemeyer Syndicate and the publishers who later acquired their stable of stories routinely updated the old books. It was what you did if you wanted to keep selling. I’d venture to say that anyone who grew up on those books would agree that revising them in the 1950s was probably a good thing.

Andrew Svenson, 1948 photo. (Courtesy happyhollisters.com)

Svenson outlined and wrote Hardy Boys books along with a coterie of largely anonymous syndicate writers. But he alone was responsible for conceiving, outlining, and writing the Happy Hollisters series, which ran for 33 books.

The Hollisters, who live in the fictional town of Shoreham, consisted of a mom, dad, five kids, a dog, a cat, and—in the later books—a donkey adopted on a trip to Puerto Rico.

(Courtesy happyhollisters.com)

Svenson was inspired by his own family. He and his wife lived in the suburb of Bloomfield, New Jersey, with six kids and a bevy of pets. When he traveled, alone or with the brood, Svenson collected ideas for stories. Back home, he’d draft a working outline, and dictate a 33,000-word Hollister book in about a month. The children’s literature archives at the University of Mississippi preserve many of the audio discs Svenson generated on a Sound Scriber device, as well as the initial manuscripts later typed by secretaries. Each book is about 18 chapters of about 1,600 words each. Sticking to that formula was how he managed to hit that 180-page target that impressed me so much as a young reader. He would have had to write about two books a year to reach 33 titles in the span of time he worked on those.

As they travel the USA and the globe, the Hollisters encounter new cultures and find themselves in the middle of a new (yet always murderless) mystery. For the era, the books were considered educational since they delved into different topics—sign language, braille, coin collecting, new cuisines, foreign languages, just to name a few. The photos Svenson collected on his travels informed the illustrations later created by Helen S. Hamilton.

In the heyday of the Syndicate, the Hollister series sold about 11 million books. It was the bestselling mystery series for younger readers at the time. Doubleday and Stratemeyer severed their Hollister contract in 1971, though there had not been any new books for some time. Before he died in 1975, Svenson and the Syndicate tried to tempt new publishers, but found no takers. The Syndicate transferred the copyright to Svenson’s heirs, who tried for a few more decades to interest other publishers. Nothing doing.

In 2010, Svenson’s grandchildren re-launched the series as a self-publishing venture, carefully retyping the entire series—1.1 million words—into digital form for the first time, and carefully digitizing the original Hamilton images and covers. One by one, they re-issued the books as ebooks, paperbacks, hardcovers, and eventually audiobooks. They connected with fans via social media, a website, and homeschooling conferences. The final reissued book pubbed last year. Reviewers on Amazon largely celebrate the books as wholesome, and routinely cheer their happy endings.

On one hand, there’s a powerful lesson here for all writers. Currently, copyright in the United States extends for the life of the author plus 70 years. We have all heard stories of “orphaned” author estates, where the work of a writer disappears because no one has been empowered to license their work after their deaths.

The Svensons—via The Hollister Family Properties Trust—lucked out by making their own luck. Svenson’s widow wisely renewed the copyrights of all the books, which was necessary at the time. His children and grandchildren were all well-educated, many of them with backgrounds in publishing, radio, marketing, and catalog sales. If there was one family who was not going to lose their father’s legacy, it was this one.

That all said, how well do the books hold up?

The reissued Hollister volumes preserve Svenson’s words exactly as they were originally published. As I re-read Sea Gull Beach, I continued to be amazed by Svenson’s gift for compression, keeping the plot humming along quickly, and ending nearly every chapter with a cliffhanger.

I certainly came across language and scenarios that struck me as antiquated. Eleven-year-old Pam Hollister wonders if girls are allowed to enter the kite contest at Sea Gull Beach. Prior to their trip, the siblings mount a pirate play to benefit a local hospital for “Crippled Children.”

In The Indian Treasure, the fourth book in the series, the Hollisters visit the Native American Pueblos of New Mexico. They learn about adobe houses, historic pueblo structures and kivas, turquoise jewelry, the Hispanic culture of the Southwest, chili con carne, and more. That all struck me as truly educational. Svenson researched Pueblo culture by connecting with Popovi Da, a legendary Native American artist, and docents with a famed tour company.

In the 21st book, The Haunted House Mystery, which features a deaf character and sign language, Svenson thanks his contacts at a school for the hearing impaired. So we have this impression of a conscientious author trying to get his facts straight. And remember, Svenson—a longtime member of the Mystery Writers Association—is the guy Stratemeyer turned to when they needed to revise their older books. He was seen by his peers as an open-minded writer who could be trusted to portray all characters with decency.

Yet there’s still a moment in The Indian Treasure—just one—where an individual is described as a redskin. When the Hollister kids are playing, their shouts of joy are described as “war whoops.” A lot of their conversation touches on all the “nice Indians” they’re meeting, perhaps implying that there are “bad Indians.”

I could go on, probably, but you get the idea. As I read The Indian Treasure, knowing the history of the Stratemeyer titles, the former children’s editor in me thought, “Wow, this would have been so easy to fix. The book is already 90 percent respectful to other cultures. Why not revise it so it’s perfect for the 21st Century?”

That’s where I had to slap myself and ask myself the question I asked you at the beginning. Books are a snapshot in time. When the author says it’s done, it’s done. Dame Agatha did in fact famously revise the book we now know as And Then There Were None for the American market, eradicating its inherent racism. She was alive to do that work, though her UK publishers changed the UK title in the 1980s, after her death. In the New York Times article I link to above, her great-grandson says the book would have been unpublishable if they hadn’t.

Christie, Fleming, LeGuin, and Dahl aren’t here to revise their books anymore, and neither is Svenson. My current thinking is that if a book is problematic, the publisher can at the very least provide a disclaimer. The Svenson heirs have done exactly this. The copyright pages of the new Hollister books all carry this language: “Certain events, terminology and behaviors are presented in this volume exactly as originally printed. In retaining potentially confusing and questionable situations, the publisher offers the opportunity for valuable ‘teaching moments’ for today’s reader.”

I think that’s the way to go. I mean, this is a series that presents a post-war America where diversity is largely nonexistent. The Hollisters are white kids who live in a largely white neighborhood. But that describes most of the old movies cinephiles celebrate today. Heck, it describes a ton of modern movies and TV programs. As an aside, I’ll note that Svenson did in fact write the first African American mystery series for Stratemeyer, featuring a five-kid family not unlike the Hollisters. I’m tracking down a few of those original volumes to review.

That said, aside from the cultures they visit, the Hollisters don’t ever meet anyone who isn’t white unless the plot necessitates the diverse character’s presence. An encounter with a Native American baseball player in their hometown is the inciting plot point of The Indian Treasure, for example. Changing the plot to “correct” the Native American issue would not fix the overwhelming whiteness. You’d have to revise the entire series.

That brings up a host of questions I don’t feel qualified to answer, or even grapple with. But’ll throw them all at you, because some of you have been at this game longer than I have, and probably can offer some coherent responses.

If it was okay to revise the old Hardy Boys and Nancy Drews, why isn’t it okay to revise Fleming, Dahl, LeGuin, or Christie?

Is it because the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew aren’t considered great literature?

Because they were written by an ever-revolving team of house writers?

Because they were mystery novels for kids?

What’s really the issue? Are we okay protecting kids from potentially troubling content, but comfortable allowing adult readers to make up their own minds about the content they consume?

How does this connect with banning books?

And while your eyes are still bleeding, let me lob the most important one at you: Why won’t the Willy Wonka slot machine recognize that I’m a huge fan of the Gene Wilder movie, and let me win big time?

* * * 

See you in three weeks!


31 August 2023

A Question of Empathy

 The other day I had a well-dressed, impeccably kempt older man approach me while I was getting gas at a local service station. He asked me in broken English laced with a lot of Italian, for help getting his rental car back to Portland. I offered to pay for some gas, but he told me his minivan didn't need gas. He needed money.

I rarely carry cash and this time was no exception. Plus, the kiosk attendant at this particular station was not set up to give customers cash. On top of this, I was on my way to work, and didn't have time to get to a cash machine. I apologized and told him I couldn't help him.

While I filled up I watched him approach a number of other people at the other pumps, and have more success. I felt relieved and wished him well.

The above got me thinking about the limits and limitations of human empathy on my drive in to work, and several times since. 

So of course I turned this into a thought exercise on the impact of empathy (or lack thereof) on writing fiction.

Jane Austen once famously said, “I intend to write a protagonist that no one will like. But I shall like her.” Austen was, of course, talking about the titular protagonist of her novel, Emma. And even though Emma Woodhouse frequently comes across as self-satisfied, wrong-headed, and hard-to-like, She never comes across as undeserving of the reader’s empathy. Also, Austen clearly felt empathy for this, one of her more famous creations.

This is interesting to me, because the difference between affection and empathy with regard to literary characters is so often papered over by writers, either in a hurry, or blessed with onlya marginal amount of insight and skill.

Of course, affection and empathy are not the same thing. One requires an emotional reaction in favor of the character whereas the other requires only the acknowledgment of the basic humanity of the character, and thus that character’s being deserving of empathy.

And not just “deserving.” Empathy is not a luxury in writing good fiction. It is a necessity. And while it’s truly needed for one’s protagonists, and any supporting characters more complex than the stock background characters who wander in and out of so many stories with only one thing to do, one sentence to deliver, etc., in service of the story’s plot, it is all the more important that the writer have it and employ it when writing the antagonist of the piece.

Because one truism of writing is that the best villains are the fully drawn ones. And a character drawn without empathy on the part of the writer is doomed to be a caricature, a cartoon.

This is in large part because non-cartoony characters tend not to think of themselves as the “bad guy.” In their narrative, they are the hero, not the ostensible protagonist.

Well-drawn villains possess their own desires, goals and resources, same as the best protagonists. The difference between the character and the cartoon is the difference between Heathcliff the complex, Byronic antihero of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Heathcliff the orange cat from the classic comic strip.

Mustache twirling is best left to the Dick Dastardlys of the literary world. For me, give me characters whose motives and desires I can understand and respect, even if I don’t share them.

That’s what empathy on the part of the author can give the reader. And what a gift it is.

See you in two weeks!

30 August 2023

The Picture on Pratchett's Wall

I just finished reading Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes: The Official Biography, by Rob Wilkins.  I have written about Pratchett before but I want to discuss one aspect of his life that shows up a lot in this book.

Sir Terry Pratchett (or STP, as his fans called him) was a bestselling British author of comic fantasy novels.  That description is selling him pretty cheap, since he has also been called the greatest satirist since Chaucer.

And "cheap" is sort of the point, because I want to talk about his relationship with money.  Pratchett was raised by working class parents (his father was an auto mechanic).  He got a job as a reporter for a small local newspaper and later moved to public relations for the nuclear power industry.

During this time he had started publishing novels. After several had appeared he decided, with great trepidation, to try writing full-time.  His publisher (who became his agent) said "His conclusion was that he thought he would see a dip in income in the short term, but then he would quite possibly be all right."

Which turned out to be understatement.  At one point he and Wilkins (personal assistant turned business manager and then offficial biographer) calculated that his novels were paying him ten pounds per word.  I assure you those of us who write mystery short stories do not make that much.

Pratchett seemed a bit obsessed with money, which is understandable because, besides providing for the necessities and luxuries of life, it was a way of keeping score.  For many years critics were not lining up to heap his work with praise and awards. After all, this couldn't be serious work.  The wrote about vampires, for heaven's sake.  And golems.  It took all those serious critics a while to catch onto the fact that  his vampires struggled with addiction problems and the golems were fighting for their civil rights. 

Why do I say he was obsessed with money?  Here is one of many examples.  At one point he created a book that was different from anything he had done before and he was so offended by the bids publishers made on it that he took the book off the market for many years.  What was wrong with the bids?  He felt they were too high.  He worried that whichever publisher released the book would lose money.

I diagnose a case of imposter's syndrome, a terrible fear that people might realize he was not as good as they thought.

Fortunately that never happened.  Pratchett  was even knighted for his "services to literature" although he maintained that his greatest service to literature was never trying to write any.

He was not shy about donating money, including a million pounds for Alzheimer's research after he was diagnosed with an early-onset variant.  (He lived with it for eight  years. and remarkably kept writing until near the end.)  Generally he gave money to organizations that were also finding money elsewhere.  "Pratchetts help those who help themselves."

He kept a photo on his office wall, one he got from W.H. Smith's, Britain's biggest bookstore chain. Was it a cozy picture of the front of one of their shops? No. Perhaps a candid snap of him signing books?  Sorry.

It was a photo of the company's book-pulping machine, where unloved volumes went to die.

It was, he said, a reminder to write better.  And he did.